CHICAGO YOUNG PLAYWRIGHTS FESTIVAL
Small productions all over town are wilting with the onset of summer, facing audiences of 12, 10, or 6 diehards who would rather see a show than go to a beer garden. I went to Pegasus Players’ Young Playwrights Festival with this in mind, wondering what future there was for any young playwright. But Pegasus is cultivating theater that’s alive and hopeful–this program included some of the most concerned, honest, and vibrant work I’ve seen in a long while.
This is the sixth year Pegasus has held its competition for Chicago-area students, and of the 250 scripts submitted, 4 were awarded full professional productions. None presumes to worry about the future of theater. None caters to what’s popular. The young playwrights are rash; they haven’t learned yet that writing from the heart and striking straight at an issue doesn’t always draw audiences, though it should. They are merciless. They tell it like it is–and if you can’t hack it, go watch TV. They draw their theater from life, not the other way around.
My Son Is a Girl is the collaborative product of 200 students from Carpenter, Peabody, and Otis elementary schools, who developed it through improvisation in seven classrooms. Their story is of a boy who gets his wish to become a girl in a fairly straightforward way. I shudder to think what 200 adults would do with such a premise, but these students would rather delve into good-natured silliness than the human psyche. Instead of dissecting the boy, they accept him–and move on with glee to the havoc his transformation creates. Warner Crocker directed with all the exaggeration and speed of a child telling a wildly funny story, but what these children seem to be telling us is that we have a long way to go before we are free of sexual stereotypes.
The Rush, by Carlee Schwilk, a senior at Amundsen High, offers a group of teenagers who think the only way they can take control of lives ruled by parents and teachers is to risk them in a series of dangerous stunts. They scorn drugs and instead play chicken with oncoming trains. Schwilk’s play is less a portrait of teenage despair than it is a quick, bold line drawing. It leaves an emotional imprint, but it could do with some fleshing out. Lynn Baber’s sensitive direction fills in some of the gaps, but Schwilk might want to try doing that for herself. She certainly seems capable enough, and a playwright isn’t always blessed with as competent a director as Baber.
Speaking in Tongues, by Maria Alexandra Weiss, a senior at Saint Ignatius College Prep, is a fascinating examination of the search for faith in a fundamentalist church and how a young man and woman differ in their struggle to attain it. Surprisingly sophisticated, the work offers some lovely language and a strong philosophical view on how faith is affected by the achieving of it. Weiss’s script provides strong dramatic tensions, and it benefits from a magical, dreamlike staging by Harry Lennix, as well as an outstanding performance by Steven Farber.
Pegasus has also set up an International Young Playwrights Festival that every other year will present a play by a student from a different country as part of the larger Chicago festival. This year’s production is Emiko’s New Year Day by Atsushi Nozo of Tokyo, in which a group of terribly sad and repressed people find happiness when a magical cat convinces them to follow their hearts. It’s a disturbing look at a Japanese society that’s beginning to crumble under the pressures of duty and etiquette, and it’s written with a naive disregard for both of these things–if Nozo were a prisoner of duty like the characters in his play, he wouldn’t be questioning it. The play itself is awkward, perhaps suffering from the translation, but the wish of a young man to be a “free bird” transcends the clumsiness.
The ten actors are all professional, dedicated, and charismatic. They are there to serve the plays and the young playwrights, not to get noticed–which leads to some pretty amazing, uninhibited performances.
If these young playwrights don’t get the honesty squeezed out of them by higher institutions of learning, if they stay true to their instincts, there will continue to be voices in the theater worth reckoning with. And that beats a beer garden any day.